Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged that a “vast media conspiracy” was seeking to oust him from power by reporting misleading leaks from his conversations with the publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, new alleged leaks from those conversations featured Netanyahu discussing the specifics of how to curb Yedioth’s rival, the Israel Hayom daily.
Netanyahu’s late 2014 conversations with Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes are at the heart of one strand of a corruption investigation, which has seen the prime minister questioned three times under caution and Mozes questioned four times under caution. Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, is suspected of negotiating an arrangement with Mozes under which Yedioth would give him more favorable coverage in the run-up to the 2015 elections, and he in return would ensure legislation reducing the circulation of Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said on Monday evening that he would consider releasing the entire tapes of the Netanyahu-Mozes conversations, reportedly recorded at Netanyahu’s initiative, at the appropriate time.
Excerpts of transcripts carried on Monday by Israel’s Channel 2 News, which has been releasing new excerpts daily since last week, featured the two men allegedly conversing on the specifics of Israel Hayom’s circulation and how to limit it under proposed legislation that would restrict the distribution of free newspapers.
Mozes says they need to “think about the details of the law,” and Netanyahu says he’ll “have to tell Sheldon.”
The men discuss reducing Israel Hayom to two-thirds of its circulation, but Mozes notes that the legislation’s wording will “have to cite a number (of copies), not ‘two-thirds.'”
Assents Netanyahu: “We have to explain the number… to take it down to two-thirds.”
Mozes notes that Israel Hayom’s circulation has been rising: “When we talked in the past about numbers, it used to be 275,000 copies, and today it’s 325,000,” he notes, explaining the increasingly detrimental impact on Yedioth, which is Israel’s best-selling tabloid but has fewer readers than the free Israel Hayom during the week. “The more time that passes,” says Mozes, “it becomes (more of) a problem. We put it off and its gets harder to solve.” The Friday weekend edition of Israel Hayom, he adds, has a circulation of 400,000.
Mozes then notes that Israel Hayom enjoys considerable revenue from government advertising — “30, 50, 70 percent of the advertising pages” are government ads, he complains. Ideally, says Mozes, he’d like “a formula” regarding such pages.
Netanyahu asks: “What? Can you limit the number of advertising pages?”
Mozes decides to put the matter aside for the time being. “The state is giving them money. That’s not right,” he says. “But I’m mentioning this in passing. We can’t deal with everything all at once.”
Netanyahu agrees: “Okay, I’ve noted that; we won’t deal with that now.”
Sources close to Netanyahu have alleged that he recorded the conversations because he feared Mozes was trying or would try to extort him. The Channel 2 report asserted that the nature of the conversations made plain, by contrast, that these were serious and “practical” negotiations. This was clearly a case of Netanyahu looking to rein in Israel Hayom as his side of a bargain, its reporter said, under which Mozes would ensure more favorable coverage for the prime minister to help him win reelection.
There is no evidence, however, that any deal between the two men was implemented. And Netanyahu earlier Monday repeated his refrain that the entire corruption investigation against him would come to nothing.
Attorney General Mandelblit, in a speech earlier Monday, said considerable evidence had been collected at home and abroad in recent months in the second of the two cases under investigation, which concerns alleged illicit benefits received for years by Netanyahu and his wife Sara from businessmen including film producer Arnon Milchan. Some legal commentators have said they believe this cigars-and-champagne case is more likely to lead to an indictment than the Yedioth case. Mandelblit gave no indications regarding possible indictments.
The investigations are ongoing, and Netanyahu is reportedly set to be questioned for a fourth time later this week.
“There is a fake investigation taking place against me on television every night,” Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud faction in the Knesset earlier. [The media] are trying to pressure the attorney general and the police into indicting me for no reason.”
Netanyahu described the media coverage of the corruption investigations as a “march to decapitate” him, and accused journalists of acting as if they are “the investigators, the judges and the executioners.” He insisted: “There has been no criminal wrongdoing.”
Mozes, the Yedioth publisher, was interrogated for the the fourth time Monday by police at the the Lahav 433 anti-corruption unit in Lod. The interview came the day after Mozes spent eight hours being grilled by officers.
Ron Yaron, editor-in-chief of Yedioth Ahronoth, also gave a statement to police Monday. On Sunday he wrote a front page editorial in which he indicated he had no knowledge at the time of a Netanyahu-Mozes deal, and said that if the newspaper’s coverage had been ordered to swing behind the prime minister he, and his staff, would have walked out.
Netanyahu is said to have told police investigators that he never had so much as “half an intention” of implementing any deal with Mozes.
Analysts have said indictments are possible in both cases, and some have begun to see the twin scandals as heralding the possible end of Netanyahu’s nearly eight years in power. Netanyahu vowed on Monday that he would continue to lead his party and the state.
Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, resigned his office in 2009 before being indicted on a series of graft charges. He was eventually convicted on a small portion of them and is currently in prison.